BOISE, Idaho — Federal officials have released final plans for one of the largest-ever projects to remove juniper trees to protect habitat for imperiled sage grouse that will also benefit cattle ranchers in southwestern Idaho.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management made public earlier this week the 247-page final Environmental Impact Statement for the Bruneau-Owyhee Sage-Grouse Habitat Project.
The agency plans to remove juniper trees from about 1,100 square miles (2,800 square kilometers) within a 2,600-square-mile (4,200-square kilometer) area in Owyhee County over about 15 years.
“We feel that with a landscape-scale project like this, it gives us a better chance for success,” said BLM spokesman Michael Williamson.
Experts say warmer winters combined with fewer wildfires at higher elevations of sagebrush steppe have allowed junipers to expand into areas once filled with sagebrush and native grasses.
The ground-dwelling, chicken-sized sage grouse are found in 11 Western states, where between 200,000 and 500,000 remain, down from a peak population of about 16 million. The males are known for their strutting courtship ritual on breeding grounds called leks, and produce a bubble-type sound from a pair of inflated air sacks on their necks.
Officials say the overall project area for juniper removal includes about 70 occupied sage grouse leks.
Sage grouse depend on sagebrush for food year-round, and hens nest underneath the plants. Tall native grasses help screen the hens and their eggs and chicks from predators.
The federal government has declined to list sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act, but that decision is reviewed periodically.
Mike McGee, the BLM’s project manager for the juniper-removal plan, said work could start this year or 2019, depending on when money is available. He said most of the work will be done at above 4,000 feet.
He also said the work is aimed at junipers encroaching on sagebrush areas, and old-growth juniper trees are not part of the plan to be cut.
Trees that are cut, he said, will be cut low to the ground so they can’t be used as perches by raptors that hunt sage grouse.
Besides sage grouse, he said, the work will also help other wildlife.
“I think that’s a huge win,” he said. “It will benefit big game, including mule deer and elk, bighorn sheep and antelope.”
Scott Lake, Idaho director for the environmental group Western Watersheds Project, said the primary threat to sage grouse in the area is cattle grazing, but the federal agency can’t address that due to political pressure.
“As a result, BLM is focusing on vegetation manipulation,” he said in an email. “But, what is politically expedient is not necessarily good for sage grouse.”
Karen Launchbaugh, director of the University of Idaho’s Rangeland Center, said it’s clear junipers have been spreading. She said the most obvious evidence comes from comparing homesteader photos that show few juniper trees to recent photos showing the same areas filled with junipers.
She said junipers soak up water and force out other plants. Once the junipers are removed, it’s expected sagebrush and native grasses will return. More grass will increase food for grazing cattle and benefit ranchers in the area.
Studies are planned to track results.
“We definitely are improving sage grouse habitat, which would make you think we will have better sage grouse populations,” Launchbaugh said. “But the grouse will have to decide that.”